Announcer:

This podcast is produced by Benchmark Education.


Kevin Carlson:

Any language is a system.

So how can we teach it like one?

And how do we differentiate within that system to meet the needs of all our students, from our most advanced readers to our most fragile ones?

I’m KC, and this is Teachers Talk Shop.

Wiley Blevins:

Have you taught a skill one week, and then a couple weeks later your students look at you like they’ve never heard what you said? That’s decayed learning. And it’s an enormous problem in phonics because we have a couple years, these early years where we’re teaching so many skills, so quickly.

Kevin Carlson:

Explicit, systematic phonics instruction has scientifically proven benefits, and it can also allow for what each student needs.

To talk more about that is Wiley Blevins.

Wiley is the author of numerous best selling books about phonics and reading, and he’s joined by Wendy Murray, publisher of the PD Essentials line at Benchmark Education. Here, Wiley answers some questions from teachers, just like you.


Wendy Murray:

Our first question comes from Sammy Lascaris, and she asks, Why can't my phonics instruction be based on the leveled books my students are reading?

Wiley Blevins:

I get asked this question a lot. And when we talk about phonics instruction and certainly when we read the research around phonics instruction, the two terms that keep bubbling up to the surface are that the phonics instructions should be both systematic and explicit. And yes, you can certainly be explicit in your phonics instruction when you're using leveled books, but it's the systematic part that is missing and that is where the problem lies.
In order for us to be systematic, we need to have a defined scope and sequence. And that scope and sequence really creates the spine of our instruction on which all our other activities are based. There's a lot of conversation about what that scope and sequence should be. In fact, I'm asked all the time, “What's the right scope and sequence? What should I be using, Wiley?”
And the reality is there is no right scope and sequence, but there's scope and sequences that are smarter. For example, scope and sequence that goes from simpler to more complex skills, and that separates confusing letters and sounds. That is what I would consider a smarter scope and sequence. A scope and sequence is also very strong if it goes from the known to the new in very easy small steps that make that new learning more obvious for a young learner. So for example, I often see in kindergarten classes that I visit. Children are working on learning their basic letter sounds, and they're reading simple CVC short vowel words. So for most of the year it's one letter one sound. Very, very simple. The next skill and the scope and sequence is often what is called final e or silent e like the word take.
And when you think about it, conceptually, it's an enormous leap to spend months and months and months learning one letter, one sound that all of a sudden you're confronted with a word where there are two letters in the word that are acting together as a team to make a new sound. And the letters aren't even beside each other in the word. It's sort of like how cruel is the system? That's an enormous conceptual leap.
So what I like to do, and what I think a really smart scope and sequence will do, is they will write a word that a student knows, like the word hat using skills that they have already learned. And then underneath it, I will write the word hate with the new skill. I will read both words and then engage children in a conversation about what they observe about these words in terms of how they sound and what they look like, how they're spelled. And that is how I introduce that new concept then I can explicitly state this new sound spelling and that it stands for the long vowel sound and so on. So really great scope sequence takes advantage of these, the known skills and these very small leaps and take into account how we get children to make those conceptual leaps in ways that make the new learning obvious and easier to understand.

Wiley Blevins:

The great thing about having a defined scope and sequence instead of it being based on your level books, which can be very random, is that when you have a defined scope and sequence, you know what to cover at each grade. You can assess children and know are there skills that they should have mastered and they haven't yet. And you can fill in those holes to build a stronger foundation because remember, phonics is one of the key foundational skills. You can also look at the scope and sequence and see: are there students who have mastered most of these skills so then I can move them further in that phonics continuum and really meet them where they are and with what they need in order to progress more and more rapidly in reading. So a defined scope and sequence is really the hallmark of systematic phonics instruction because it provides the spine of all that instruction.

Wendy Murray:

Yeah, and it seems too like when you talk about scope, that's a defined scope and sequence. It's assuring the correct breadth that a child needs is he or she learns to read and write and also that levelled books are wonderful and they have their purpose, but they really weren't designed as a system for teaching phonics. So even though there's a systematic feel to them, they were never intended to fit like a glove into phonics instruction.

Wiley Blevins:

No, because the criteria in which leveled books are created doesn't take into account the spelling patterns in those books.

Wendy Murray:

Terrific. That's really helpful.


Kevin Carlson:

So we’ve learned that a defined scope and sequence is critical to the success of systematic phonics instruction. But how does that let you differentiate your teaching to help all your students get to mastery? That’s coming up, after the break.


Announcer:

If you have a question for the Teachers Talk Shop Podcast, you can email it to info@teacherstalkshop.com. You can even record it as a voice memo on your phone and send that to us if you like. Now, back to Wiley.


Wendy Murray:

Our next question comes from Valerie Kim. And she says. Can you be systematic and still not meet the needs of your students, though, like is being systematic a cure all? Or you can still, you know, have to differentiate.

Wiley Blevins:

I see it all the time. You can have systematic instruction and not meet the needs of your students because a great phonics scope and sequence and a great system has a built review and repetition cycle. And this is another issue with using leveled books. You can introduce a skill in a book because there are a lot of words with that skill that your students will need in order to access the words, but they might not see that skill much in upcoming books. So that instruction that you did on this particular day or this particular week might not be followed through. And so that initial learning, because you don't get to mastery right away with phonics, that initial learning can begin to decay. And so we don't get the impact of students of reading and writing.
Great systematic phonics instruction has a built-In review and repetition cycle. So when I introduce a new phonics skill to my students, I make sure for the next four to six weeks I do purposeful and systematic review and repetition. I build in exercises in the blending and the dictation and the stories that we're reading. I'm looking at students’ application, the writing and so on, because for most students it takes that long for them to get to mastery. The consistent work on a skill, they don't learn it, most students, in just a week or a couple exposures.
And so by building in this review and repetition cycle, I can assure that all children get to mastery so that they can then transfer the skill to all their reading and writing experiences. And that is our goal. And to get there faster.
If you don't have enough review and repetition, the learning can decay. And one of the biggest issues in phonics instruction that we don't talk enough about is decayed learning. If we don't hold on to the skill long enough after the initial introduction, that learning can start to dissipate. To disappear. I ask teachers all the time. Have you taught a skill one week, then a couple weeks later your students look at you like they've never heard what you've said? And they all nod their heads. That's decayed learning. And it's an enormous problem in phonics because we have a couple years.
These early years were teaching so many skills, so quickly. And a lot of times what I see is, you know, one skill, one week. We go to new skill the next week. We're marching through these skills because there are so many skills on the standards. And the result is we're getting exposure focused learning and not mastery learning. So that review and repetition cycle helps you build mastery.

Wendy Murray:

Wiley, many teachers are doing this work during the guided reading time, and they're trained to use the leveled readers. Should decodable texts be a more pronounced part of this work though?

Wiley Blevins:

That's right. OK, so let's unpack that, because there are a lot of things there. The first issue. The first issue is the decodable text. Do you absolutely have to have decodable text in your phonics lessons? So if the only instruction students are getting is during a small group lesson that's book based, there's no decodable text there. And so when we look at the books, especially the early levels like levels A, B, C, D, there are very few short vowel words in those books. They're pattern books and they're using a lot of sight words and story words and what have you. But if you look at the kindergarten state standards of the Common Core standards, children have to master short vowel CVC words in kindergarten. So there's a mismatch between the expectation, the state standards, and the reading materials that we are providing our students. So decodable text, what I call accountable text, where there are a high percentage of words that we can hold students accountable for based on the phonics skills we're teaching them. And some of the site words that we're teaching them has to be a component in a phonics lesson. And it's tied to the other issue that you brought up: if your phonics instruction is only happening during small group, that raises a lot of issues. In order-- and this is the hardest thing for a lot of people to wrap their heads around--phonics requires a multi tiered instructional approach. So you do need time where there's whole group phonics instruction, where you are exposing children to all the grade level skills. Because one of the biggest issues I see is that sometimes teachers will assess students, and if you have students who are below level, for example, maybe miss previously taught skills they haven't mastered. They will put them at a lower place in the Phonics continuum. And so they march through those skills. But by the end of the grade, they only are exposed to a small portion of that grade level's skill. So they go to the next grade already behind.

Wiley Blevins:

So all children need to be exposed to grade level skills during some whole group instruction. Those lessons can be brief, but they also need to have some decodable texts. Now, you will have to manage your expectations for students who are at a different levels. So providing a whole group instruction doesn't. I mean, it's one size fits all, it needs to be differentiated.

So, for example, if you're doing you know, you're providing a big list of words that you're having students read during blending. Maybe those students who were lower in the Phonics continuum, you only hold them accountable for a small set of those words. And maybe those are the words you only hold them accountable for when you're doing dictation or you're doing or you're doing word building. And when you read the decodable it might be too difficult for them at that point. So maybe they first listen to it on the computer, follow along, maybe click on some words to hear them to sound it out before they get to the whole group lesson. Do you see what I'm saying?

Wiley Blevins:

If children are above level, they're further in the phonics scope and sequence. You can introduce the skill and add some more sophisticated words using that skill to the lesson to benefit them. If you're reading a decodable book, maybe they only read it once. So you can check that they've mastered it. And then the second time that the children read it, maybe that next day to build fluency. You don't have them re read it because it's a waste their time. You can use that time to teach a skill further in the scope and sequence. So that's what I mean by multitiered instruction. You have your whole group instruction where you're exposing children all the skills and then during small group is where you meet them, where they are. So if there is some lower level skills, they haven't mastered. You're filling in those holes to build that strong foundation. If they're they've already mastered a lot of the skills that you're doing, you move them further in that continuum. That's why having a defined scope and sequence that phonics spine is so helpful because I can plug them in to a place in that continuum and they just keep moving them forward. It makes instruction very, very simple. And every child gets their needs met when you do the multi-tiered approach.


Kevin Carlson:

Wiley has talked about how you can differentiate your instruction within your systematic phonics instruction. So how much time should you allow for it? We’ll find out, after the break.


Announcer:

Interested in learning more? Benchmark Education is releasing Wiley’s new professional development book on phonics in September 2020, titled Meaningful Phonics, Fine-Tuning the Powerful Practices That Maximize Student Learning. This book simplifies the complexity of phonics and helps educators take their foundational skills instruction to the next level.

Go to www.benchmarkeducation.com/PDessentials to purchase your copy today.


Wendy Murray:

Gina Ryan, asked the question, doesn't systematic mean that all students have to be on the same page when it comes to instruction? And how will that work for my students? So it does sound like there's a lot of differentiation that goes on with systematic Phonics. A teacher needs ways to kid watch and assess throughout.

Wiley Blevins:

One of the biggest criticisms that people have about having a defined scope of sequence is this: Oh, everyone's on the same page at the same time. That is not what having a defined scope and sequence means. At all. It's just your spine. And you expose children, you place them where they need, all these things are happening simultaneously. Keep in mind that phonics instruction, the bulk of it is happening in those first two years. We need to get in there, get it done, do it well, and move on. And so it’s a really small, targeted period of time in which we have to do right by our students when it comes to introducing these skills and getting them to mastery so they can transfer them.

Wendy Murray:

Wiley, what's an amount of time per day for phonics instruction. Is there a range or what's the base?

Wiley Blevins:

Yeah, I get asked this all the time. It's the hardest question to answer because so many school districts have clearly defined literacy blocks that they've partitioned off. I will say when I see teachers devoting only about 10 minutes to it, it doesn't feel like enough to me only because what I define great phonics instruction during that time. They're reading and writing to apply the skills every single lesson. So when I think of a fine instruction, it could be a short five, 10 minute introduction with some activities, but then they're spending another maybe 10 minutes applying it to the reading of a decodable or accountable text and then writing about that text, which is a tremendously useful application. So for me, I need a good 20 minutes, maybe 30 minutes, depending on grade level and how much I'm doing that particular day. But you need to think about Phonics instruction as also including reading and writing. So people like to segment it. You know, there's phonics and there's this isolated lesson. And then we over where during reading. I don't think of it that way. It's phonics with reading and writing. And we may be doing other reading during small group, but that's still extending that application and that work with all the skills children have been learning up to that point. So if we're just doing phonics and it's isolated and then we're going to a level book, there could be no connection, there could be no follow through. And I see that a lot. So the impact of that instruction is minimized. And we know that the kinds of follow up reading we give children after a phonics lesson has a tremendous effect on the effectiveness of that lesson. So tons and tons of reading, tons and tons of writing in a phonics lesson and as follow up to the phonics lesson is absolutely essential in kindergarten and first grade.

Kevin Carlson:

After the break, Wiley summarizes what he’s shared about systematic phonics instruction.

Announcer:

If you want Wiley’s 3 takeaways from this show sent straight to your inbox, sign up for our updates at TeachersTalkShop.com.

Wiley Blevins:

So the three things I want teachers to know about systematic phonics instruction are that one, you need a defined scope and sequence. The second thing is that you need built in review and repetition. And the third thing is for phonics instruction to really be effective you need a multi-tiered system where students are being exposed to grade-level skills during whole group instruction but you’re continuing to meet them where they need during small group instruction.

Kevin Carlson:

Thank you, Wiley! Thank you, Wendy! And thank you for the questions, Sammy, Valerie, and Gina. Next time on the Teachers Talk Shop Podcast…

Wiley Blevins:

I need to know very quickly if there are any issues with building that foundation. I can't wait to mid-year. I can't wait to the end of the year. I need to make those course corrections. I need to modify the whole group and the small group instruction very quickly to make sure every child gets to mastery.

Kevin Carlson:

For the Teachers Talk Shop Podcast, I’m Kevin Carlson.

Thanks for listening.